Underwater Exploration Timeline 4500 B.C. to 1600s University of Wisconsin Sea Grant
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 4500 B.C. to the 1600s:

4500 BC
Coastal cultures such as those found in Greece, Mesopotamia, China, and probably many other parts of the world, engage in diving as a form of food-gathering, commerce, or warfare.

1194-1184 BC
Divers are involved in military operations during the Trojan Wars. They sabotage enemy ships by boring holes in the hulls or cutting the anchor ropes. Divers are also used to construct underwater defenses designed to protect ports from the attacking fleets.

1000 BC
Many cultures have a history of diving, including those in China, Japan, Korea, coastal Europe and the Americas.

The writings of Homer mention Greek sponge fishermen who plummet to depths of almost 30 meters (100 feet) by holding a heavy rock. They knew little about the physical dangers of diving. To try and compensate for the increasing pressure on their ears, they poured oil into their ear canals and took a mouthful before descent. Once on the bottom, they spit out the oil, cut as many sponges free from the bottom as their breath would allow, and were then hauled back to the surface by a tether.

500 BC
A diver named Scyllias and his daughter Cyana are commissioned by the Persian King Xerxes as treasure divers during one of the numerous wars between the Persians and the Greeks.

414 BC
The first account of diving used in warfare is found in the narration of the siege of Syracuse by the Greeks, written by the historian Thucydides. He tells of Greek divers who submerged to remove underwater obstacles from the harbor in order to ensure the safety of their ships.

360 BC
Aristotle mentions the use of a sort of air-supply diving bell in his Problematum: "...in order that these fishers of sponges may be supplied with a facility of respiration, a kettle is let down to them, not filled with water, but with air, which constantly assists the submerged man; it is forcibly kept upright in its descent, in order that it may be sent down at an equal level all around, to prevent the air from escaping and the water from entering...."

332 BC
Alexander the Great, in his famous siege of Tyre (Lebanon), uses demolition divers to remove underwater obstacles from the harbor. It is reported that Alexander himself made several dives in a crude bell to observe the work in progress.

100 BC
Salvage diving operations around the major shipping ports of the eastern Mediterranean are so well organized that a scale of payment for salvage work is established by law, acknowledging the fact that effort and risk increase with depth.

Peruvian vase shows diver wearing goggles and holding fish.

500-1500 AD
Divers continue to make significant contributions to warfare by cutting anchor ropes, drilling holes in ship's hulls and ferrying supplies to besieged coastal cities.

After discovering pearl oyster beds in the Caribbean area of the Atlantic Ocean, Spanish explorers routinely enslave native divers and make them retrieve pearls from the ocean floor. The Spaniards also force many of their Negro slaves to learn to dive in the pearl fisheries. Repeated deep diving was dangerous work, and many of the divers suffered ill health or death as a result.

One of the first recorded successful diving operations using a one-person diving bell
is carried out in Lake Nemi near Rome, Italy. The bell carried with it only the amount of air trapped within it once submerged, thus providing a short bottom time.

William Bourne, an English mathematician, draws up the first known plans for an underwater boat. His plans called for a leather-covered wooden frame to be rowed from the inside. As far as we know, this boat never was built.

Dutch physician Cornelis Drebbel builds the world's first submarine. The craft has a wooden frame reinforced with iron and covered with leather. Inside are 12 oarsmen, six on each side, who row with oars that stick out the sides through tight-fitting leather sleeves to keep the water out. From 1620 to 1624, Drebbel makes several trips in his submarine in the Thames River near London, usually traveling at a depth of about 12 or 15 feet.

The Chinese book Tiangong Kaiwu, published in the year 1637, showed a new diving method in Guangdong: the pearl divers were able to stay underwater for prolonged periods of time because a secure rope was tied around their waists connected to the ship as they breathed through a long curving pipe that led up above the surface of the water. This long breathing tube was strengthened by rings of tin and fastened to a watertight leather face mask.

George Sinclair, a professor at Glasgow University, writes a treatise describing the theory and techniques for using diving bells. At about the same time, Sir Robert Boyle makes important discoveries concerning the behavior of gases under pressure.

A French priest named Abbe Jean de Hautefeuille writes The Art of Breathing Underwater, explaining for the first time why, "It is not possible for man to breathe air at normal atmospheric pressure when he is himself underwater at depth."

Based on Sinclair's theories, Sir William Phipps uses a bell to recover nearly a million dollars' worth of treasure from the wreck of the Spanish galleon La Nuestra Senora de Almiranta in the West Indies.

The English astronomer Edmund Halley (the guy "Halley's Comet" is named after) develops a diving bell in which the atmosphere in the bell is replenished by sending weighted barrels of air down from the surface.

back to Timeline

 Underwater exploration in the 1700s and 1800s:

* the first submarine
* the first scuba
* Robert Fulton
* the Nautilus
* for the first time divers use underwater explosives
* the "buddy system"

Kitigawa Utamaro's
19th Century print, "The Abalone Divers" illustrates Japanese divers
16th century
painting of Alexander the Great, lowered
in a glass
diving bell.
Peruvian vase shows diver.
[American Museum of Natural History]

Spanish explorers force Carribean and Negro slaves to dive for pearls from 1500 through 1750.
1637: Chinese pearl diver with watertight leather face mask.
Edmund Halley's diving bell sketch.